Investors seem to be clearing their heads from the adrenaline jolt they experienced yesterday when Bloomberg reported that Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen recently approached DirecTV CEO Michael White to discuss a potential merger — in part as a response to Comcast’s $45.2B deal to buy Time Warner Cable. Shares in both satellite companies shot up on the news, but have started to settle as of midday trading today leaving Dish +5.5 over the day and a half period with DirecTV +2.6%. The big surprise in the report was that Ergen is still interested in a deal: He has been focused lately on amassing wireless spectrum to launch a broadband service, and has made skeptical comments about the prospects for traditional satellite TV. But he and White have noted that the companies could save a lot of money — if regulators would let them combine.
That’s still the main concern: “The question isn’t whether or not to try, it is whether or not to try now,” MoffettNathanson Research’s Craig Moffett says. “Logic would dictate that the chances of a successful merger attempt would be higher under a Republican administration. The companies would therefore presumably be loath to try now if their odds might materially improve in 2016.” In addition to a change in Washington, the analyst says that regulators would have to look at Dish and DirecTV differently. If they’re still perceived primarily as providers of pay TV then a deal “would stand little chance of success” because it would reduce the number of competitors in many markets from three (including cable) to two — or to one in rural communities without cable. But if the companies argue that together they could create a broadband alternative to cable then “they wouldn’t be reducing the number of competitors from three to two, they would be increasing the number of competitors from one to two.” That’s still “a tough sell,” Moffett says. Guggenheim Securities’ Paul Gallant is a little more confident that regulators would buy the broadband argument since “Comcast-TWC is potentially a game-changer and could lead regulators to think more creatively about the pay TV and broadband market in a helpful way for Dish-DirecTV.” Even so, he says a merger would face “a slightly uphill battle.”
But there’s another school of thought that the wily Ergen may have wanted word of his interest in a deal to get out to see if AT&T — or someone else — might bid for Dish. “Given its wireless spectrum assets, Dish likely has more ‘natural’ buyers than does [DirecTV],” says Wells Fargo Securities’ Marci Ryvicker. The Bloomberg report “might spark those with potential interest in Dish to move more quickly than they otherwise would have.” Yet here, too, Moffett urges investors not to bet on a big deal: A combo with AT&T “would present its own regulatory problems.” The phone company’s U-verse video service is offered in about 25% of the country and the FCC is considering imposing caps on how much spectrum a company can control. “A major spectrum acquisition would seem particularly poorly timed given this backdrop.” While he believes AT&T will “take a pass,” investors’ “fascination with M&A connect-the-dots will continue.”